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Sam Otto

Sam Otto

2015 Astronaut Scholar


Pittsburg, PA


Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering


College of Engineering


Congratulations on winning both a Goldwater Scholarship and the Astronaut Scholarship this year! When you started here as a freshman, did you think things were going to go like this?  I am honored and a little amazed to have received both of these prestigious awards given the caliber of my friends and colleagues at Purdue. That being said, I feel truly fortunate to be recognized for doing the things I love to do!


Would you briefly describe your research? So far, my research has been primarily in aerodynamics. At Purdue, I have worked with Dr. Blaisdell on high-fidelity Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) methods for high-speed, turbulent flows with applications in aeroacoustics. This got me very interested in studying the underlying physics of turbulence as well as other complex fluidic phenomena.

When I interned at NASA Glenn with Dr. Chuck Trefny, my work was much less theoretical – but equally exhilarating. There, I formulated a novel merging technique for conically-symmetric flowfields which enabled the design of supersonic inlets (jet intakes) with significantly lower drag and sonic boom signatures. Going forward, I am particularly interested in theoretical turbulence research as well as developing/using computational physics models to aid in the design of advanced aircraft and spacecraft propulsion systems.


Does this mean that airports will be less noisy? What is the intended impact of your research? The FAA bans any commercial supersonic flight over land because of sonic booms. However, there is commercial interest in supersonic flight and NASA is working to develop technologies for reducing sonic booms to acceptable levels. That is what I’m working on. NASA hopes to field this technology and others in a flight demonstrator later this decade. Additionally, part of the technique I developed may also carry over into hypersonic applications for scramjet inlets.


What is your key to success in aerospace research? I have always been very interested in high-powered amateur rocketry as a hobby. Building and flying rockets of ever-increasing sophistication throughout grade school and high school got me thinking like an engineer from an early age. I enjoy a continued pursuit of self-education in applied math and physics. Having a head-start in math allowed me to study some gas dynamics in high school and to take more advanced classes in fluid mechanics and computational aerodynamics at Purdue. When it comes to formal research endeavors, I try to prepare myself by attaining a degree of proficiency in the topics which I believe to be important or fundamental to the work. I can hit the ground running.


Has conducting undergraduate research affected the way you approach your coursework? To some extent, it has changed my outlook on the subjects I am learning. It can sometimes be very easy to fall into the belief that we have all of the answers. However, doing research as an undergraduate has reaffirmed for me that there are still shockingly fundamental and interesting things that we do not understand! With this firmly in mind, I try to approach my coursework by always probing the underlying physics along with any assumptions and apparent limitations. My eye is turned towards abstraction, generalization, and – most importantly – looking for new questions to ask. It is possible to gain insight into many challenging and worthwhile problems by understanding how related problems have been approached. I recognize the value of my coursework by keenly observing how others in the past have asked their questions and formulated the clever solutions which we are asked to learn.


What is one thing a faculty member did for you that helped you with your scholarship applications? Dr. Gregory Blaisdell and Dr. Steven Collicott both wrote Goldwater recommendation letters for me (as well as my NASA mentor Dr. Chuck Trefny). I am honored to have received their recommendations, but that is not all I have to thank them for! First off, I wouldn’t even be at Purdue if it wasn’t for Dr. Collicott stopping to talk to me and my family about microgravity flight experiments when we visited for a tour. He has been a fantastic professor and mentor to me ever since. He introduced me to Dr. Blaisdell, with whom I worked on my first undergraduate research project. Dr. Blaisdell’s guidance and mentorship have been invaluable in shaping my interests and future aspirations in research. Thanks to them, this was all reflected in my applications.


What is one thing NISO did with you that helped you with the application? Veronica Schirm’s helpfulness and support with both the Goldwater and Astronaut scholarship applications cannot be overstated. Seriously, she is awesome. From wading through short answer sections, to countless hours of input while I went through nine essay drafts, she was there every step of the way to offer guidance and sage advice. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you!


Is there anything else you’d like to add for students reading this interview? Here’s a quote I like from my favorite musician:   “What is a master, but a master student?” – Neil Peart